|On 12 March, 2006, Warsawians experienced a four-hour concert with well-known Belarusian musicians whose creative works are banned in Belarus
By Maya Medich
It is election week in Belarus and the streets are filled with campaign posters supporting the democratic opposition to president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule. Not in Belarus, though – but in neighbouring Poland, where a week of pro-democracy events across the country were launched last Sunday with a ‘Solidarity with Belarus’ concert in downtown Warsaw.
The idea behind the concert, broadcasted live on Polish tv, was to take inspiration from the music that helped to bring down communism in Poland. Polish ‘freedom’ songs of the 1980s were translated and performed in the Belarusian language. The hope amongst the organisers and artists is that music can fuel revolution and bring about democracy in Belarus as it did in Poland nearly twenty years ago, and more recently in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004.
Headlining the concert were the famous Belarusian rock bands NRM, Neurodubel, Ulis, Nowaje Nieba and Krama, whose participation in a July 2004 concert protesting ten years of Lukashenka’s rule has seen them ‘blacklisted’: an unofficial order from the presidential administration effectively banning them from radio, television and large-scale live performance in Belarus ever since.
Their ‘crime’ is not only to criticize the regime, but to perform in Belarusian, which despite its official status alongside Russian as a national language is widely seen as a mark of opposition to Lukashenka, who has referred to Belarusian scathingly as ‘poor’ language unable to express any ‘great things’. Government pressure forced the only school teaching exclusively in Belarusian, the Jakub Kolas Lyceum, to close in 2003, and Belarusian language media, such as the newspaper Nasha Niva and European Belarusian Radio, is now predominantly based in neighbouring Lithuania or Poland.
As in Ukraine in 2004, these musicians are active supporters of the democratic opposition (led by Alyaksandr Milinkevich), and the attempt to silence them is part of a wider clampdown on opposition activists, independent media and civil society, including the closure of independent radio stations and print media, harassment and imprisonment of journalists and violent dispersal of opposition demonstrations. The problem in Belarus is not official censorship, which is explicitly forbidden by the national constitution, but the significant body of legislation that is used to curtail freedom of expression and silence internal dissent. ‘Discrediting Belarus abroad’ and ‘Insulting the president’ are criminal offences punishable by up to two and five years in jail respectively.
A sophisticated variety of legal and economic mechanisms are employed to prevent rock and underground bands from performing: health and safety laws, housing regulations and tax irregularities are regularly used as a pretext to prevent concerts and unofficial gatherings. Large concert halls are generally state-owned, and the municipal authorities who grant special licenses for cultural events frequently revoke them without refund. Last minute cancellations are particularly damaging for promoters, as they stand to lose money from the license fee itself, equipment hire and lost ticket revenue. Those artists not favoured by the government, irrespective of their popularity, are limited to performing concerts with extremely little advertising in small private clubs. This limits their ability to express themselves creatively while severely reducing their earning potential. Very few Belarusian language artists are able to survive just through earnings from music. As one female artist, who recently tried to promote her new CD, told
us: “If you lose money a few times, eventually you give up. So from the point of law, everything is right, but as a business relationship it is unfair.”
Subsequently the greatest problem is not direct censorship, but self-censorship. Promoters, journalists and private club owners are increasingly unwilling to risk their livelihoods by supporting these and other Belarusian language artists.
Recent broadcasting legislation has confused the situation even further. A presidential decree from last year recommending broadcasting not less than 75 percent ‘music of Belarusian origin’ has left radio stations, forbidden from playing the Belarusian bands on the above-mentioned blacklist, with no choice but to play officially sanctioned, saccharine Russian language pop music.
“They are stopping people from hearing the real Belarusian music,” said one singer at the Warsaw concert who asked not to be named. “This law supporting Belarusian music is just for show. It’s just to prevent anyone they don’t approve of from getting on air. Any Russian singer with one grandparent from Belarus will do.”
The effect of the decree on listenership has been dramatic, although as the director of Radio Roks, previously the top alternative station in Minsk, told Radio Svaboda at the time: “We anticipate that our audience will not shrink in number, but rather change in quality.”
Smear campaign and propaganda
Whilst actively denying these artists the opportunity to perform and promote their music to the general public, state media is used to conduct an active smear campaign against rock musicians, portraying them as ‘undesirable’ elements from which Belarusian society needs to be protected. At the same time, state funds have been used to organise a series of pro-Lukashenka concerts titled ‘For Belarus’ (a slogan previously used in Lukashenka’s political campaigns) which took place all over the country for six weeks, starting on 1st of February and ending in a gala performance in Minsk on 10th of March. Each concert, explicit in its support of Lukashenka’s re-election campaign and broadcast live on state television channel ONT, is estimated to have cost up to US$ 100,000, far beyond the means of the election campaign budget allocated by law. The Central Election Committee has refuted claims that the concerts violated the electoral code. Along with the concerts which featured mostly Russian and Belarusian pop stars, Belarusian Armed Forces bands have been touring military bases and cities as part of the same campaign.
Banned from performing at home and air-brushed from official media, Belarusian rock bands have no choice but to emigrate, or to stay at home but perform abroad. Bands tour regularly to play to ethnic Belarusian audiences in Lithuania and Poland, and the largest festival of alternative Belarusian music – Basowiszcza – takes place every summer in Bialystok, Eastern Poland. In the face of official media hostility, internet is now used as the main point of contact for fans as well as CD distribution. Sites such as www.music.fromby.net act as portals for the distribution of information about concerts, album releases and actions supporting the democratic opposition.
The above information is intended to provide a general picture. There are some exceptions, however, that might indicate that the picture is not as bleak as it may seem. Despite the existence of the radio blacklist, there is evidence that some DJs on state radio stations, such as Radio Minsk, are continuing to play these artists without repercussions. European Belarusian Radio, broadcast into Belarus on medium wave from transmitters in Eastern Poland and Lithuania, dedicates large amounts of airtime to Belarusian rock music. And large scale concerts in Minsk, such as the Rok Koronatsiya 2005 awards ceremony, at which opposition leader Milinkevich appeared to a standing ovation, still take place from time to time.
At the time of writing, Minsk city authorities have just issued a license for a large-scale opposition concert, featuring a special address by opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, on Saturday the 18th of March, the day before election day, in Bangalore Square in the centre of town. But with the head of the Committee for State Security (KGB) Stepan Sukhorenko announcing yesterday that anyone intending to demonstrate in the main square on election day could face terrorism charges resulting in a jail sentence of up to 25 years, whether this concert will really go ahead – or what the consequences for the artists and the audience will be – remains to be seen.